A sepia photograph taken in about 1910 of an unknown Native American child (aged about 2-3 years) wearing shelled and beaded traditional dress over a faded out background of an old red brick building.
News + Advocacy

Effective Allyship: Learning About Indian Residential Schools For The First Time

If you’re learning about Indian Residential Schools in the U.S. and Canada for the first time; it’s critical you’re cognizant of the fact that these systems of colonial violence deliberately inflicted intergenerational trauma on Indigenous communities. Navigating our own lack of knowledge about this type of government-backed, church-led atrocity should not be placed on the shoulders of those who bear its scars.

This article discusses triggering topics related to the Indian Residential School system which some readers may find distressing. For any Indigenous People directly impacted, useful support/crisis resources have been included at the end of this post.

At the end of May this year, the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation made an announcement; they had discovered the remains of 215 children hidden in a mass grave on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School that was open from 1893 to 1978. For decades, First Nation communities have been speaking out about the thousands of young relatives who never made it home from the many institutions like this around the country. Their collective pain and grief has been so successfully ignored that the majority of non-Indigenous Canadians barely hold any knowledge of what their country has done — until now.


As much as the Canadian government and Catholic Church would like to maintain silence about their genocidal history; the 215 children must find their way home. All children lost to the residential school era (1880s to 1990s) must be located and returned to the care of their families — including those in the United States.

Starting in the 1800s (1860 for America and 1880 for Canada), Indian Residential Schools were federally-funded, church-run tools of aggressive assimilation. Created for the purpose of forcing Indigenous children into “White-American/Canadian” life, Indian Residential Schools were a place of relentless brutality and abuse. Stolen or coercively taken from their families, the aim was to remove every aspect of Indigeneity, including a love of self and connection to culture and replace it with racial hatred and the control of indoctrination. The priests and nuns who ran these schools used neglect, starvation, beatings, rape and murder to try and stop Indigenous lands and cultural lifeways from being passed on to future generations. They failed. This state- and religious-sanctioned genocide is not locked away in a dark, distant part of history — the last Indian Residential School in Canada closed in 1996.

Survivors of Indian Residential Schools share their experiences and thoughts about the remains of 215 children being found at Kamloops. In this video they discuss difficult topics (including child abuse). Their voices are important. We must listen.

Indigenous communities around Canada and the U.S. know there will be more discoveries like this — they’ve carried this knowledge for a long time. Just days after the May 27th detection of 215 children buried at Kamloops, 104 were found on the grounds of the Brandon Indian Residential School in Manitoba.

[Update June 24th] 751 unmarked graves have been discovered at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. [Update June 30th] 182 unmarked graves have also been discovered at the site of a former Residential School in Cranbrook, BC. [Update July 13th] 160+ unmarked graves discovered at former Kuper Island School, BC.

Being able to turn away from something like this because we haven’t had to live with the reality of its consequences is no longer an option. As true allies, we have to look for ways to listen effectively and be of service. As Indigenous communities resiliently work to bring their missing children home, here are a few ideas about how you can support them:

A sepia photograph taken in about 1910 of an unknown Native American child (possibly aged about 1-2 years) wearing shelled and beaded traditional dress and holding a puppy.
A photo (1910) of a very young Native American child wearing traditional shelled and beaded clothing holding a puppy – photographer unknown
  • A colonial way of thinking often silences Indigenous voices in favour of centering White romanticism about historical trauma (“saving the s*vage”, for example) — decolonize your mind
  • Follow & support Indigenous activists and groups that educate, share, uplift and mobilize — understand that the work they do is emotionally exhausting, your heartbreak about these events is not the same as theirs
  • Indigenous communities are the caretakers of their culture and their lead must be respected at all times — if you’re going to a protest, memorial or gathering, etc adhere to their wishes and protocols
  • Follow the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation website for up-to-date information about the Kamloops Indian Residential School findings — if you’re interested in donating towards further investigations or memorials for the missing children, email them at donations@kib.ca to ask how best to send money
A screenshot of two tweets by Chief Lady Bird that read: If you had no prior knowledge about Residential Schools until you heard about the 215 children's remains that were uncovered recently ... you should absolutely be outraged by the level at which you were lied to; by the secrets kept from you about the true history of "Canada". But please do not use this outrage to perform allyship or mine from Indigenous folks. Don't cry at us, tell us it's shocking, or ask us to teach you more. All of the information you seek is literally at your fingertips ... we have been screaming into the abyss for forever.
Tweets by Chippewa & Potawatomi artist, illustrator, educator & community activist, Chief Lady Bird/Twitter

Understanding the impacts of White settler colonialism on First Nation and Native American People isn’t about pointing fingers or making anyone feel guilty. It does require, however, a willingness to get uncomfortable and resist the urge to hide from the truth. We have to accept that reconciliation means getting out of the way of Indigenous People’s healing — and it’s them, not us, that gets to decide what that looks like and how long it takes.

How are you going to further educate yourself about residential schools? What can you do to support survivors?

Further Info:

Pronunciation: Tk’emlups te Secwépemc (teh-KUM-loops deh seh-KWEP-mookh)

Watch ‘The Stranger’, a short animated film about Chanie Wenjack who ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School and tried to walk the 600km home. Read more about his story.

Indigenous Accounts To Follow:
Allen Salway (@lilnativeboy) -|- Seeding Sovereignty -|- Reclaim Your Power -|- IllumiNative -|- All My Relations Podcast

First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310

Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Hotline: 1-866-925-4419

Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645

31 thoughts on “Effective Allyship: Learning About Indian Residential Schools For The First Time”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! This is exactly the kind of post I need to educate myself as it’s a completely new layer of history to understand. I don’t think I have ever read about Indigenous People before, so this is a great place to start. Appreciate your research and the detail!


  2. This is such an important topic! The way in which these countries treat indigenous people is terrifying and I hope that one day they can receive justice.


    1. I hope so too — and we must all listen to Indigenous People about what that looks like. The governments of Canada and America seem to think recognition and apologies are enough, but that changes nothing. Thank you so much for reading & taking the time to comment!


  3. That last line on that tweet, “we have been screaming it into the abyss for forever” hit me. It’s absolutely revolting what happened to those children and I’m pretty sure they’re many more situations like this waiting to be discovered. This was a great informative post!


    1. That part of it hit me too and I felt it needed to be shared in this article to highlight that point. I have no doubt that more children in other IRSs will be found — and I just hope that they are all returned home. Thank you so much for reading!


  4. Thank you so much for sharing this and raise awareness for these atrocities. I didn’t know about the Indian residential schools, but not surprised. Indigenous people have been explored, badly treated by white colonialists and continue to do so, look what is happening in Amazon… We can’t change the past but we can certainly make the future better. Thank you for advocating for indigenous people.


    1. Many non-Indigenous people are unaware of these atrocities even though the communities directly impacted have been speaking out about them for decades. I hope with this latest news that our eyes and ears are finally opened and we can support the healing of the First Nation and Native American People who are reclaiming their children. Thank you so much for reading!


  5. I grew up and was schooled in BC in the ‘70’s and I do not recall any education surround the residential schools. It wasn’t until many years later as a Public Health Nurse where we all had Aboriginal Awareness training (including a day in a roundhouse) that I learned the stories of these schools. As a white woman I feel betrayed and lied to by the education I received in my childhood. I’m so happy to see these stories finally coming out in hopes that the inequality and trauma which has effected, and continues to effect, Aboriginals. A really great post!


    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with how Indigenous issues have been so deliberately erased. I think your feeling of betrayal with this are valid as it opens all of our eyes to just how pervasive and iniquitous colonialism and White supremacy is. From here, we can now support First Nation and Native Americans with whatever they want done about these missing children (and any other issues).


  6. This information has opened a new page in history to me about Indian residential schools and indigenous people, giving knowledge of atrocities they faced. It is very important to advocate for indigenous people. Thank you!


    1. Many people are unaware so it’s important to educate ourselves further when we learn about these issues. I am glad this opened up some new knowledge for you and hopefully will lead to advocacy and understanding. Thank you so much for reading!


  7. Thank you for sharing, will definitely be using some of the resources to educate myself further. I am never surprised by the atrocious stories that do finally make their way to the surface, but always so disheartened by the lengths that our governments have gone to in order to try and keep these stories swept under the rug.


    1. It is so disheartening especially as this is something First Nation and Native American communities have been speaking about for so long. We must begin to hear what is being said and reconcile ourselves with the lies we believed and the part we played in keeping them going. Thank you so much for being open to doing some more research on this.


  8. I knew terrible things had happened in those schools, that they tried to strip away a nation’s culture and sense of identity. That there was horrible abuse. I was shocked, however, to learn about the starvation and the fact that children died and were simply discarded in mass graves. It makes me look at the peoples involved and the context of the times differently, from many angles. Thank you for sharing.


    1. It certainly made me question how nuns and priests could do the things they did and claim to be followers of Jesus, etc. What they did was pure evil and there is no way that assimilation and child abuse can be reconciled alongside their faith. There is much to unpack here and I hope that justice comes for the Indigenous communities impacted. Thank you so much for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s definitely upsetting. I would hope that those nuns and priests were really sick f**ks who used the church and the residential school system as a shield instead of actually believing their actions were a) doing good b) that assimilation and genocide were necessary.


      2. Part of me hopes that too, but sadly the Catholic Church has a long historical hand in the colonizing of Indigenous People around the world. There’s no doubt some individuals were just sick f*cks, but this was systemic. The 215 children found at Kamloops and the 104 at Brandon join the 35 at Lestock, 38 at Regina, 180 at Carlisle, etc. This was organized cultural genocide carried out by the many and not the few.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yeah it’ s impossible all those were actions of sick f**ks. Sadly…I can’t understand how anyone justified this in their hearts and minds.


  9. Thank you for sharing this and educating your readers on this matter as it’s something I don’t know much about and is truly awful to read!! Your tips are very helpful too on how we can help x


  10. It is just devastating when you think about what those children were subjected to and the pain of those who loved them when they didn’t return. I don’t think that many people realize just how recent the closure of the last school was – they are quick to point out it’s in the past but it’s really not that far in the past! These horrors were occurring while I was (safely) attending school. That’s a realization that really drove it all home for me. I am glad that more people are speaking up about this and shining a spotlight where it needs to be. While the church and government would love to say a few heartfelt words and put the flag at half-mast, calling it a day, that’s not enough!


    1. You’re right, it’s certainly not enough. The pain and trauma that was done — and is still being done now that more remains have been found. 751 new unmarked graves have been discovered at another residential school today which closed in 1997. There must be justice. Thank you so much for reading.


  11. As a Brit, the history of Canada and the US isn’t taught. However, it doesn’t take much to hear about the horrors that went on in America when it came to the native population. It always seemed that Canada was meant to have behaved better, but it should come as no surprise that they didn’t. Our news is reporting the body count to be around 750 now. Our collective history is mired in shame. No wonder the privileged try to hide it


    1. A friend of mine said today that the UK news was beginning to report on the 751 unmarked graves found at the former Marieval Residenial School so that is good to hear the stories are being told. Sadly, the Indigenous nations know that more will be found at other schools. So far the 215 found at Kamloops, the 104 at Brandon and now the 751 at Marieval already join the 180 at Carlisle, 38 at Regina and 35 at Lestock. They have been telling us about the atrocities for decades. I hope Canada searches every school and does the right thing — and the U.S. starts looking. So much healing needs to happen. Thank you so much for reading.


  12. This is such an important topic. I actually took a Native American literature class for a semester and they talked a lot about the boarding schools and how harmful they are. I’m saddened but not surprised that many had died considering how they were treated. It’s especially sad considering they were just children, taken away from their homes. Thank you for sharing.


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